My first memories about Chernobyl

by Natallia Pinchuk

The author

I was 4 years old when Chernobyl accident happened and I don’t remember anything. Chernobyl didn’t affect my life the way it did my parents. And this is understandable – I didn’t have two kids to take care of, or all the bureaucracy to fight with and communist party to be afraid of – I was only four, and probably didn’t care much for anything except ice-cream and my toys. Nevertheless, Chernobyl became an inseparable part of my life – I grew up with it. It’s like being a blind person, who was born blind and doesn’t care much for sight because he doesn’t know what it’s like to see. It was the same with me – I just didn’t care that Chernobyl happened just because I never knew a life without it.

Since I remember myself I heard the word Chernobyl many times and knew that it was something bad. But I didn’t see how it was bad, because I didn’t think that it had anything to do with me. Sure I did have to go to my grandparents’, who lived in Russia, for the whole summer ever since Chernobyl happened, but it was fun! And sure I had an enlarged thyroid, but it didn’t hurt, and I never got cancer, and didn’t even know that I could get it or what it was. It required yearly check ups, but that wasn’t a big deal. 90% of the kids that I knew had the same problem, so from a child’s point of view, there was nothing wrong with me because the majority of the kids were the same way. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with the kids who didn’t have enlarged thyroids – they were weird…

The first time I ever understood that I was that “blind person” happened when I was about 8 years old. I met a Russian boy at a play ground during my multiple trips to visit my grandparents in Russia. I wanted to impress him with something, so I told him a joke that I overheard in one of the adult conversations about strontium. He looked at me strangely and asked: “What’s strontium?” And I said: “Well, you know, it’s that stuff in your bones!” And he looked at me even more strangely and said: “I never heard about it”. “Come on, of course you have, everybody has it!” – I protested. ”I don’t think I do!” And then it occurred to me that he probably was right, and he didn’t have it. It was only me, who was bound to laugh at jokes about strontium in my bones, because that was the only thing I could do, I could never take Chernobyl out of my life!

Based on the level of contamination, the land around Chernobyl was divided into three zones: the 30km exclusion zone – no one lived there, the contaminated zone – we had a few kids from those areas in school, and the zone with mild contamination – that’s where I lived. So in school we used to make fun of the kids from more contaminated zones, joking that they glow at night. However, in the “clean” cites, I was the one to make fun of, because I was from a more contaminated zone. I also got higher allowance from the government than other students, because I was from a contaminated city, so I couldn’t really complain about that.

The only other thing from my childhood that separated me from other kids was the fact that we had a Geiger counter at home (my dad got one somewhere at work). In fact, as years went by we got a few of those, and, let me tell you, those were really fun to play with! Especially the ones that had check sources! This was probably what eventually led me to my career choice of being nuclear engineer!

So the realization of the full scale of Chernobyl accident didn’t come until much later in my life. I always considered myself lucky in comparison to thousands of other kids, who actually had moved out of their homes, who got sick, had cancer or even died.

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